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Biden to Address Congress
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Biden to Address Congress

The president puts the pressure on for Congress to pass an infrastructure plan, while Democrats weigh whether to work with Republicans or try to go it alone.

Good morning. President Joe Biden will deliver his joint address to Congress tomorrow. He is set to call for a police reform compromise as well as a new sweeping proposal to invest in education, child care, and more.

Biden’s soon to be revealed “American Families Plan” is expected to include funding for free community college, universal prekindergarten, and paid family and medical leave, among other top Democratic priorities. Republicans have already pushed back on the proposal, saying they believe it is too costly. They are also likely to take issue with Biden’s plan to raise taxes on wealthy Americans to pay for it. The White House’s latest push will add pressure on congressional Democrats to deliver on an ambitious agenda, as they are already in the process of converting Biden’s initial $2.25 trillion infrastructure and climate (and more) proposal into legislative text.

One thing is clear: This won’t be the incredibly speedy process that defined Democrats’ initial coronavirus relief effort. The next few months will be packed with jockeying among lawmakers, negotiations with Republicans, and fine-tuning to navigate Biden’s various priorities through Congress. Democrats don’t have a firm plan for how they’ll sequence different items in the coming months. Lawmakers could draft and pass several different bills, depending on where bipartisan backing can be mustered.

Either way, Democrats are likely to advance some of Biden’s more liberal ideas through budget reconciliation, the process they used for their coronavirus aid plan. Reconciliation has a lower threshold for passage in the Senate than most bills, allowing Democrats to pass legislation without support from Republicans. But gathering the requisite support to pass such a measure can prove difficult, and it will take some time to determine which items will need to go into the partisan vehicle and which ones have a chance at passing under normal Senate rules.

The biggest opportunity for bipartisanship appears to be traditional infrastructure. Discussions between the administration and a group of Senate Republicans are set to continue this week.

Infrastructure Talks

When Senate Republicans gave the White House a much smaller counteroffer to President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion coronavirus aid plan earlier this year, Democrats quickly rejected it and moved Biden’s legislation along party lines.

Now, Senate Republicans are proposing a slimmer infrastructure plan—$568 billion over five years, some of which includes funding for the reauthorization of current programs—for conventional items like roads, bridges, and airports. It also includes billions for broadband, public transit, rail, and water systems. 

“It’s important for you all to realize that this is the largest infrastructure investment that Republicans have come forward with,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who has taken a leading role in the negotiations, told reporters last week. “This is a robust package.”

Still, the offer is miles apart from Biden’s massive plan to spend more than $2 trillion over eight years, which includes new funds on top of the money Congress was already expected to spend on infrastructure items. But the White House has been far warmer to the GOP conversation starter this time around.

Even as many congressional Democrats brushed off the proposal as too narrow last week, the White House appeared to welcome it. Press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden wants to have “an exchange of ideas.” 

“We’re reviewing the details of the proposal,” she said Friday, adding that staff-level conversations will proceed through the course of this week. “This is a good start, and we look forward to having the conversation moving forward.” 

Asked why the administration seems to have more patience with bipartisan negotiations for this legislative effort compared to the coronavirus stimulus bill, Psaki said the aid bill was “meeting what we felt was a crisis situation.” Biden believed “there was an urgency in moving that forward and there was less flexibility because he felt the size of the package needed to meet the moment,” she told reporters. The process for finalizing the infrastructure package will be different, with more time to negotiate.

Part of this dynamic boils down to congressional math. Holding only 50 seats in the Senate, Democrats can’t throw in the towel on bipartisan talks and move forward with a Democratic-only bill until West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other moderates are willing to do so. Manchin has made clear he isn’t ready yet to proceed on a partisan basis. He said on CNN Sunday that he wants the infrastructure bill to focus on items like roads and bridges, calling the GOP plan a “good start.” He reiterated his stance that the package should be separate from a number of social investments Biden has proposed, like money to help care for the aging and people with disabilities. 

“I do think they should be separated because if you start putting so much into one bill, which we call an omnibus bill, it makes it very, very difficult for the public to understand,” Manchin said. 

Some progressives have raised fears that dividing the proposals could endanger Biden’s other priorities.

“If your question is should we split it, I’m not terribly comfortable with that, because—I’m open to persuasion here—but my instinct is the second tranche will be really hard to pass,” Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz told The Dispatch last week.

Others have argued the party should take robust action soon instead of spending time negotiating with Republicans.

“I’m an impatient person. We waited four years,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin told The Dispatch as he left votes Monday night. “Trump delivered nothing. I want Biden to move on this as quickly as he can.”

And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders is also calling for Democrats to move swiftly. “We should have our ears open, we should listen to any great ideas, any good ideas that Republicans have, but obviously it cannot be an endless process,” Sanders said Monday. “It’s got to move very quickly.”

The biggest sticking point between the two parties is how to pay for the physical infrastructure investments. Biden has proposed raising corporate taxes to finance the legislation, an approach Republicans staunchly oppose. Republicans have instead said the bill could rely on user fees to raise money, perhaps paired with repurposing some of the unused funds included in various coronavirus relief bills. Democrats aren’t keen on that plan, either.

Capito, the Republican who helped introduce the GOP counteroffer, said Monday on Bloomberg TV that she remains in touch with the White House and her colleagues. 

“It’s really about getting the momentum and seeing the art of the possible,” she said.

Capito reiterated the idea of using unspent coronavirus aid money to help finance the package, saying Republicans are concerned that flooding too much new money into certain areas can lead to waste and fraud.

“It’s a moving document, as it should be, but at least it’s clear, it’s concise, and I think it represents the aspirations that we have that we can do a great infrastructure,” she said of the GOP offer.

On the Floor

The House is out this week. The Senate is in and voting on some of Biden’s nominees. The chamber will vote soon on Jason Miller’s nomination to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Senators are also set to consider Janet McCabe to be deputy administrator of the EPA and Colin Kahl to be undersecretary of defense for policy. The Senate is also expected to take up a bipartisan drinking water and wastewater infrastructure package this week.

Key Hearings

  • The House Homeland Security subcommittee on border security, facilitation, and operations will hold a hearing on unaccompanied children at the southern border on Tuesday afternoon.

  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a high-profile hearing to examine U.S. policy on Afghanistan on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, will testify.

  • The House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and citizenship will hold a hearing Wednesday at 2:15 p.m. on barriers to legal immigration. 

  • The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution will hold a hearing Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. on gun violence and “red flag” laws.

  • Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI counterterrorism division, and Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s national security division, will testify before a House Appropriations subcommittee on violent extremism and domestic terrorism on Thursday morning.

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold its worldwide threats hearing on Thursday morning. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier are set to testify.

  • Dr. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, will testify before a House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee Thursday morning alongside other experts on NASA’s goals for its Mars Perseverance Rover.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.